By SOLA EBISENI
AT a meeting of the Afenifere surprisingly called in his Akure country home on March 16, 2021 and in which his most shocking handing-over speech was delivered, Chief Reuben Famuyide Fasoranti, affable Leader of Afenifere, described Ayo Adebanjo as “my good brother and friend, a politician of the Awolowo school of thought who worked so hard to keep Afenifere up in the times of the travails”.
Unveiling him as his worthy successor, Pa Fasoranti asserted that: “Afenifere now needs more than ever before to have an improved organisation with a more effective approach to combat the monstrous invasion of our culture and pride as a people.
Chief Ayo Adebanjo’s efforts stand him out as a deep lover of Afenifere and the Yoruba people. He has been in the trenches all his life. Dedicated to the Yoruba race and to Afenifere to which his name is almost synonymous now”.
It is significant that Chief Fasoranti kept all about this his nonagenarian coup d’état to himself without even the knowledge of Ayo Adebanjo who was not also at the historic meeting.
So he took up the mantle of the leadership of the Afenifere pronto a few days to his birthday. Even more shocking to me was Chief Ayo Adebanjo announcing me as the Secretary General of the apex Yoruba socio-political organisation in what appeared like his first duty. I hate to recall that within the same period Afenifere lost a much younger but another phenomenal officer, Yinka Odumakin, its then workaholic National Publicity Secretary.
Embedded in the summary description of Chief Ayo Adebanjo by Chief Fasoranti, is a complex web of accomplishments and personality. A combatant, who has been in the trenches all his life and with whom Afenifere is virtually synonymous. However, his avalanche of life achievements contrasts almost directly with his personality. While it is quite a difficult task to wriggle through his battles in several theatres of life, his personality is a tabular rasa; just one encounter you know him inside out. There is no pretence about who Ayo Adebanjo is.
Born on April 10, 1928, at Ijebu Ogbo, called “Small London” by its inhabitants, Ayo Adebanjo is a product of the admirable Yoruba religious amity of a Christian father, Joel, and a Moslem mother, Salawatu. He had his primary education in Lagos Island between 1934 and 1943. He told of his short-lived attempt to work at the Ministry of Health in Lagos which employment was terminated for being rude to a White man in a demonstration for Independence in which he was already actively participating as a teenager.
It could not have been otherwise as his adolescent mind was caught in the electrifying frenzy of nationalism then enveloping Nigeria from its Lagos Island base. No wonder, young Adebanjo started off his political activism as follower of Nnamdi Azikwe who, to all intents and purposes, was the visible successor to Herbert Macaulay, the father of Nigerian nationalism. Not employable by any government establishment on account of his non-conformist dispositions, Ayo found solace in journalism with the budding Nigerian Tribune, a reality that became the turning point in his life in two major fronts.
First, was his weaning from Zikism to Awoism. As a secondary school leaver, his beat in the Tribune was judicial correspondent which exposed him to the forensic advocacy of the likes of Rotimi Williams and others. Journalism consequently lost him to Law and had to jettison his position as an Organising Secretary of the Action Group in 1953 to study Law in the United kingdom; he was called to the Bar in 1961 and returned to Nigeria and served in Awolowo Chambers on professional tutelage.
In his Memories and Memoirs, Michael Adekunle Ajasin, Governor of old Ondo State and immediate successor to Awolowo as Leader of Afenifere, wrote about the pervading influence of Nnamdi Azikwe in Lagos buoyed with his ubiquitous West African Pilot newspaper that political wisdom demanded that Awolowo and his colleague- founders of the Action Group had to embark on subterranean mobilisation into the new political party which eventually debuted in 1951.
The messages of federalism as the best form of government for the diverse and most polyglot emerging country and the philosophy of social welfarism encapsulated in the party’s slogan of Life More Abundant, spread like wild fire amongst the Yoruba elite who were deployed by Awolowo for the most organised campaigns yet unequalled on the continent. Ayo Adebanjo will often tell us that the dexterity with which Awolowo propagated federalism and related it as most fitting for Nigeria dragged him into Awoism.
The control of Government of Western Nigeria was due to this assiduous mobilisation of the people contrary to the insinuations in certain quarters that the AG won majority in Western Region Parliament as a result of ethnicity-motivated carpet crossing. If there is an Awoist who, through interviews and writings have convincingly explained that the AG won a befitting majority in the Parliament which is the fulcrum of parliamentary system of government, it is Adebanjo. Not only that, you cannot fault his thesis that the Action Group was indeed the most national and widespread political party in the Nigerian of the First Republic.
Hear him: Of the three Regions, we formed the government in the West and the Opposition in each of the Northern and Eastern and the alternative government at the Federal Parliament. No other party performed such a feat”. The decision of the Tafawa Balewa Federal Government to declare a state of emergency in the West finally began the journey in which the First Republic was consumed.
Never to take the back seat in any struggle he believes in which, according to Fasoranti (supra) has kept him permanently in the trenches, Ayo Adebanjo was among the 30 associates of Awolowo charged with him in the infamous treasonable trial of 1962. He fled into exile with some of his accused colleagues where they remained under the permissive custody of ideological soulmate, Kwame Nkrumah, while Awolowo was spending his terms in Calabar prison.
On February 24, 1966, when Nigeria was still grappling with the effects of the Nzeogwu and his colleagues young majors’ coup and the tottering General Aguiyi Ironsi Government, General Joseph Arthur Ankrah struck in Ghana and the Awolowo rebel boys were booted in the next available plane to Lagos, landing Ayo Adebanjo and the rest Ghana returnees in Kirikiri prison. General Gowon who took over the reins of power in Nigeria in the counter-coup of the Northern officers found use of Awo, and the rest is history.
The Second Republic politics enacted the Unity Party of Nigeria as the reincarnation of the Action Group, but in terms of strategic ideological coordination of its activities and political mileage outside the Western Region from Badagry to Asaba, UPN was no match to AG. Yes, Adebanjo and other UPN foot soldiers went round the country with Adebanjo, spending over a year in the Borno Province, the Calabar-Ogoja-Rivers enclave which was the AG’s strategic partner was lost to the conservative National Party of Nigeria; same as the traditional Benue-Plateau axis was lost to Azikwe’s Nigerian Peoples Party.
The analysis is not the object of our Papa’s birthday. At the beginning of the Babangida’s Transition Programme, culminating in the ill-fated Third Republic, Afenifere was not quite enamoured with his unpredictable maradonic manoeuvres and took passing interests. Like most organisations in the progressive inclination of Nigeria politics, it was believed Babangida had hidden agenda which proved prophetic as events unfolded but Babangida took Nigerians for granted to his own shock when he annulled the June 12, 1993 presidential election which the late Chief Moshood Olawale Kasimawo Abiola won on the platform of the Social Democratic Party, a party of the left of the centre in tune with Afenifere philosophy.
The National Democratic Coalition, NADECO, midwifed by the Afenifere, not only stampeded Babangida out of power, putting a lie to his much vaunted chest beating slogan of soldiers being trained as military officers to dominate their environment. Abacha went on a sadder note, but like the three captains sent to fetch Elijah in the Bible, General Abdussalam was wiser, engaging and left happily. He had to bend the law to allow the Afenifere party, Alliance For Democracy, be even when it fell short of the requirement of reflecting two thirds of the states of the Federation to merit registration.
Ayo Adebanjo was in charge of the Afenifere AD party which swept through all the six states of the South West, winning virtually all contested positions. The nation was forced to concede the presidential tickets of the two leading parties: Peoples Democratic Party and the AD/ANPP Alliance to Chiefs Olusegun Obasanjo and Olu Falae respectively.
At 94, two days ago, Sunday, April 10, Ayo Adebanjo is unrepentant about restructuring Nigeria. I became very close to him during the 2014 National Conference, the report of which he insists is the minimum template on which a true federal Nigeria must blossom. In his commitment to equity, his current battle next to restructuring is Igbo presidency; and if you like, he is prepared to be dictatorial about it even at meetings.
He is a beneficiary of the grace of God that has seen him through many of his battles and keeps him alive and bouncing, preferring to stand reading his speeches no matter the length. His memories are such that he recalls events with the minutes of details, including the dramatis personae and dates so admirably you would pray that there is an archive where his memories are kept for eternity; the kind of stories we were told those days in our village as innocent adolescents that the Russians have paid for the head of Awolowo to be preserved for them after death for continuous research.
To Ayo Adebanjo, his quest for better Nigeria is no longer for his own benefit as, according to him, he is already in the departure lounge of life, only waiting to board the plane to meet Awolowo. He has been saying so for more than 10 years and as his followers and admirers often pray, the heavens have not even constructed his plane.
After all, his father was just 105. Ojo yin a gun, e pe ju baba yin lo. Happy birthday, Sir.
Ebiseni is Secretary General, Afenifere.